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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 92. Marcus Aurelius.


Μάρκου Ἀντονίνου τοῦ αὐτοκράτορος τῶν εἰς ἑαυτὸν βιβλία ιβ’ (De Rebus suis libri xii). Ed. by Thomas Gataker, with a Latin Version and Notes (including those of Casaubon). Trajecti ad Rhenum, 1697, 2 vols. fol. The second vol. contains critical dissertations. (The first ed. appeared at Cambridge, 1652, in 1 vol.) English translation by George Long, revised ed. London, 1880.

See the liter. quoted in § 20, above (especially Renan’s Marc. Auréle, 1882).


Marcus Aurelius, the last and best representative of Stoicism, ruled the Roman Empire for twenty years (a.d. 161–180) at the height of its power and prosperity. He was born April 26, 121, in Rome, and carefully educated and disciplined in Stoic wisdom. Hadrian admired him for his good nature, docility, and veracity, and Antoninus Pius adopted him as his son and successor. He learned early to despise the vanities of the world, maintained the simplicity of a philosopher in the splendor of the court, and found time for retirement and meditation amid the cares of government and border wars, in which he was constantly engaged. Epictetus was his favorite author. He left us his best thoughts, a sort of spiritual autobiography, in the shape of a diary which he wrote, not without some self-complacency, for his own improvement and enjoyment during the last years of his life (172–175) in the military camp among the barbarians. He died in Panonia of the pestilence which raged in the army (March 17, 180).576576    According to less probable accounts he died of suicide, or of poison administered to him by order of his son, Commodus. See Renan, p. 485.76 His last words were: "Weep not for me, weep over the pestilence and the general misery,577577    "Quid me fletis, et non magis de pestilentia et communi morte cogitatis?" Capitolinus, M. Aurelius.77 and save the army. Farewell!" He dismissed his servants and friends, even his son, after a last interview, and died alone.

The philosophic emperor was a sincere believer in the gods, their revelations and all-ruling providence. His morality and religion were blended. But he had no clear views of the divinity. He alternately uses the language of the polytheist, the deist, and the pantheist. He worshipped the deity of the universe and in his own breast. He thanks the gods for his good parents and teachers, for his pious mother, for a wife, whom he blindly praises as "amiable, affectionate, and pure," and for all the goods of life. His motto was "never to wrong any man in deed or word."578578    Medit. v. 31.78 He claimed no perfection, yet was conscious of his superiority, and thankful to the gods that he was better than other men. He traced the sins of men merely to ignorance and error. He was mild, amiable, and gentle; in these respects the very reverse of a hard and severe Stoic, and nearly approaching a disciple of Jesus. We must admire his purity, truthfulness, philanthropy, conscientious devotion to duty, his serenity of mind in the midst of the temptations of power and severe domestic trials, and his resignation to the will of providence. He was fully appreciated in his time, and universally beloved by his subjects. We may well call him among the heathen the greatest and best man of his age.579579    So Renan, Marc-Aurèle, p. 488, without qualification: "Avec lui, la philosophie a régné. Un moment, grâce à lui, le monde a été gouverné par l’homme le meilleur et le plus grand de son siècle." But elsewhere he puts Antoninus Pius above Aurelius. "Of the two, " he says (Conférences d’Angleterre, translated by Clara Erskine Clement, p. 140 sq.): "I consider Antonine the greatest. His goodness did not lead him into faults: he was not tormented with that internal trouble which disturbed, without ceasing, the heart of his adopted son. This strange malady, this restless study of himself, this demon of scrupulousness, this fever of perfection, are signs of a less strong and distinguished nature. As the finest thoughts are those which are not written, Antonins had in this respect also a superiority over Marcus Aurelius. But let us add, that we should be ignorant of Antonine, if Marcus Aurelius had not transmitted to us that exquisite portrait of his adopted father, in which he seems to have applied himself through humility, to painting the picture of a better man than himself."79 "It seems" (says an able French writer, Martha), "that in him the philosophy of heathenism grows less proud, draws nearer and nearer to a Christianity which it ignored or which it despised, and is ready to fling itself into the arms of the ’Unknown God.’ In the sad Meditations of Aurelius we find a pure serenity, sweetness, and docility to the commands of God, which before him were unknown, and which Christian grace has alone surpassed. If he has not yet attained to charity in all that fullness of meaning which Christianity has given to the world, he already gained its unction, and one cannot read his book, unique in the history of Pagan philosophy, without thinking of the sadness of Pascal and the gentleness of Fénélon."

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are full of beautiful moral maxims, strung together without system. They bear a striking resemblance to Christian ethics. They rise to a certain universalism and humanitarianism which is foreign to the heathen spirit, and a prophecy of a new age, but could only be realized on a Christian basis. Let us listen to some of his most characteristic sentiments:

"It is sufficient to attend to the demon [the good genius] within, and to reverence it sincerely. And reverence for the demon consists in keeping it pure from passion and thoughtlessness and dissatisfaction with what comes from God and men."580580    Medit. II. 13.80 "Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good."581581    IV. 17.81 "Do not disturb thyself. Make thyself all simplicity. Does any one do wrong? It is to himself that he does the wrong. Has anything happened to thee? Well; out of the universe from the beginning everything which happens has been apportioned and spun out to thee. In a word, thy life is short. Thou must turn to profit the present by the aid of reason and justice. Be sober in thy relaxation. Either it is a well-arranged universe or a chaos huddled together, but still a universe."582582    IV. 26, 27.82 "A man must stand erect, and not be kept erect by others ."583583    III. 583 Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to my mind, and never stop [doing good]."584584    IX. 4.84 "What is thy art? to be good."585585    . IX. 5.85 "It is a man’s duty to comfort himself and to wait for the natural dissolution, and not to be vexed at the delay."586586    V. 10.86 "O Nature: from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return."587587    IV. 23.87 "Willingly give thyself up to Clotho" [one of the fates], "allowing her to spin thy thread into whatever things she pleases. Every thing is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered."588588    IV. 34, 35.88 "Consider that before long thou wilt be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist which thou now seest, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned, and to perish, in order that other things in continuous succession may exist."589589    XII. 21.89 "It is best to leave this world as early as possible, and to bid it friendly farewell."590590    IX. 2, 3; XI. 3.90

These reflections are pervaded by a tone of sadness; they excite emotion, but no enthusiasm; they have no power to console, but leave an aching void, without hope of an immortality, except a return to the bosom of mother nature. They are the rays of a setting, not of a rising, sun; they are the swansong of dying Stoicism. The end of that noble old Roman was virtually the end of the antique world.591591    The significant title of Renan’s book is Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique.91

The cosmopolitan philosophy of Marcus Aurelius had no sympathy with Christianity, and excluded from its embrace the most innocent and most peaceful of his subjects. He makes but one allusion to the Christians, and unjustly traces their readiness for martyrdom to "sheer obstinacy" and a desire for "theatrical display."592592    XI. 3: "What a soul that is which is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body, and ready either to be extinguished or dispersed, or continue to exist; but so that this readiness comes from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity, and in a way to persuade another without scenic show (ἀτραγώδως)." I have availed myself in these extracts of Long’s excellent translation, but compared them with the Greek original in Gataker’s edition.92 He may have had in view some fanatical enthusiasts who rushed into the fire, like Indian gymnosophists, but possibly such venerable martyrs as Polycarp and those of Southern Gaul in his own reign. Hence the strange phenomenon that the wisest and best of Roman emperors permitted (we cannot say, instigated, or even authorized) some of the most cruel persecutions of Christians, especially in Lugdunum and Vienne. We readily excuse him on the ground of ignorance. He probably never saw the Sermon on the Mount, nor read any of the numerous Apologies addressed to him.

But persecution is not the only blot on his reputation. He wasted his affections upon a vicious and worthless son, whom he raised in his fourteenth year to full participation of the imperial power, regardless of the happiness of millions, and upon a beautiful but faithless and wicked wife, whom he hastened after her death to cover with divine honors. His conduct towards Faustina was either hypocritical or unprincipled.593593    At his earnest request the obsequious Senate declared Faustina a goddess; she was represented in her temples with the attributes of Juno, Venus, and Ceres; and it was decreed that on the day of their nuptials the youth of both sexes should pay their vows before the altar of this adulterous woman. See Gibbon, ch. IV. A bas-relief in the museum of the Capitol at Rome represents Faustina borne to heaven by a messenger of the gods, and her husband looking at her with admiration and love. Renan apologizes for his favorite hero on the ground of the marvellous beauty of Faustina, and excuses her, because she naturally grew tired of the dull company of an ascetic philosopher!93 After her death he preferred a concubine to a second wife and stepmother of his children.

His son and successor left the Christians in peace, but was one of the worst emperors that disgraced the throne, and undid all the good which his father had done.594594    Renan thus describes the sudden relapse (p. 490): "Horrible déception pourles gens de bien! Tant de vertu, tant d’amour n’aboutissant qu’à mettre le monde entre les mains d’un équarrisseur de bêtes, d’un gladiateur ! Aprés cette belle apparition d’un monde élyséen sur la terre, retomber dans l’enfer des Césars, qu’on croyaitfermé pour toujours ! La foi dans le bien fut alors perdue. Après Caligula, après Néron, après Domitien, on avait pu espérer encore. Les expériences n’ avaient pas été décisives. Maintenant, c’est après le plus grand effort de rationalisme gouvernemental, oprès quatre-ving quatre ans d’un régime excellent, après Nerva, Trajan, Adrien, Antonin., Marc-Aurèle, que le règne du mal recommence, pire que jamais. Adieu, verta; adieu, raison. Puisque Marc-Aurèle n’a pas pu sauver le monde, qui le sauvera?"94

Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander; Seneca, the teacher of Nero; Marcus Aurelius, the father of Commodus.



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